Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The EU to sanction the US and China over Climate Change

The European Union has warned the two largest polluters and contributors to climate change that trade sanctions would be imposed against them if they do not commit to greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2009. This comes in the wake of the Bali Road Map agreed at the last global climate change conference. The EU has indeed led by example by setting very ambitious targets to address climate change. In fact some countries of the EU are even talking about becoming independent of fossil fuels, that is a carbon-neutral state, in a few decades. 

The UK Prime minister is cautious about distancing those powerful economies from the negotiating table, but the French President has called for a carbon tax on imports to ensure that European companies that need to comply with tough environmental rules are not undercut by foreign competitors whose governments are not capping carbon emissions. In her defence, the US retaliated saying that climate change should not be used as a pretext for protectionism.

Of course these positions show how wide the divide is towards reaching a realistic global reduction/stabilisation in greenhouse gases before 2010, almost 30 years after scientists raised the alarm. With the earth overheating, the ice caps melting, and the islands disappearing - the worlds most powerful nations are contented to squabble over trade and protectionism. What if nothing happens?

To answer this question I introduce the term ecological footprint to illustrate the cost of doing too little and nothing over the last 30 years. An ecological footprint is the area of biologically productive land and water (biocapacity) required to support our lifestyles (footprint). Many individuals, companies and countries avoid this calculation as it shows how bad they have been bleeding the earth of its natural assets. Let's look at some nice charts. You can explore more about the concept by visiting http://www.footprintnetwork.org and http://www.ecologicalfootprint.org/.

 

graphEFvsBioCap.php graphEFvsBioCap.netherlands
US Ecological Footprint 1961-2003
Figure 1
tracks, in absolute terms, the average per person resource demand (Ecological Footprint) and per person resource supply (Biocapacity) in United States of America over a 43-year period. Biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices (such as fertilizer use and irrigation), ecosystem degradation, and weather.(from http://www.footprintnetwork.org/)
Netherlands Ecological Footprint 1961-2003
Figure 2
tracks, in absolute terms, the average per person resource demand (Ecological Footprint) and per person resource supply (Biocapacity) in Netherlands over a 43-year period. Biocapacity varies each year with ecosystem management, agricultural practices (such as fertilizer use and irrigation), ecosystem degradation, and weather.(from http://www.footprintnetwork.org/)

Both graphs show that the US and the Netherlands (an EU member threatened by sea level rise) have been operating over and above their ecological footprint for nearly 40 years. One other interesting observation is that the biocapacity of the US has been declining and that of the Netherlands has stabilised. Therefore if each of these two countries were individual spaceships, both would have perished by now?  Why have they not? Because they are using up the biocapacity of the other nations of the planet. In fact we have now exceeded the biocapacity of the planet, hence the ecological uncertainty we face today. Climate change or not, ecological disturbances was bound to happen - no bank sustains excessive borrowings without sustainable earnings. We have borrowed from the planet and now we are refusing to repay the 'nature debt'.

06_world_efbio
Figure 3 tracks, in absolute terms, the world's average per person Ecological Footprint and per person biocapacity over a 40-year period. (from http://www.footprintnetwork.org/)

 

This is the cost of doing little or nothing - in the last three decades our global biocapacity has been dramatically reduced and our footprint has significantly increased. I agree, the method and data needs to be further refined, but the picture is gloomy and better methods and data will not improve the picture, I'm afraid. The EU is doing something about it, other large economies should follow suit. Start with domestic measures, just as California has chosen to do, its the only way forward.